Called La Bandera, or “the flag” in Spanish, my plate is supposed to mimic the colors of the national banner for the Dominican Republic, with its fields of blue and red divided into neat rectangles by a white cross. At least that’s the theory, though as best as I understand it, Dominican cooks have always accepted a certain amount of poetic license when discussing the dish’s symbolism. Traditionally, the white rice represents the cross, the stewed beans stand in for the fields of red and the braised chicken (or beef) embodies — and here’s where one tends to turn a colorblind eye — the fields of blue.
With its shades of brown, bronze and electric orange, my Bandera looks more like an homage to A&W root beer. There are at least a couple of reasons for this disconnect. Mecho’s, a colorful outpost from the same siblings behind Los Hermanos, has codified a practice first started at the Columbia Heights storefront: It allows diners to customize their plates, a defining characteristic of those younger generations that prefer culinary flexibility over a chef’s rigidity. The second reason is a result of the first: I built my Bandera with my appetite in mind, not to honor the dish’s patriotic imagery, real or imagined. The truth is, I couldn’t have been happier with my order, no matter its color palette, as I paired saffron-tinted rice with long, ropy sections of sofrito-stewed pork, the combination sweet, rich and succulent.
Over the years, the fast-casual movement has become an equal-opportunity incubator: Its architects can take just about any cuisine and transform it into a streamlined operation with clean lines, interrogation-bright interiors and an efficient, if brutal, kind of reductionism. It started with Chipotle, with its focus on Mission-style burritos, and has continued through fast-casuals dedicated to burgers, pizza, vegetarian fare, Chinese chun bing, Ethiopian platters, Israeli street food and much more. Co-owner Aris Compres says Mecho’s may be the first fast-casual built around Dominican cooking, with its wide array of influences, including Spanish, African and indigenous Taino foodways.
“Like Five Guys with burgers or Taco Bell or Chipotle, whatever, you don’t really have that big name affiliated with Dominican food yet,” Compres says. “We hope to be the first one to kind of blow that up in the U.S.”
To make the leap from neighborhood haunt to corporate enterprise, with the potential to scale, twin brothers Aris and Raymond Compres turned to Joe Spinelli, the founder of Restaurant Consultants, to lay out the painstaking process of empire-building. The process begins, quite humbly, in the kitchen, where a trained chef has been following the twins’ mother, Mercedes, whose recipes animate both Los Hermanos and Mecho’s. Transcribing her intuitive approach — with practiced hands that serve as both scale and measuring spoon — into measurements and instructions that can be repeated, anytime, anywhere, has been a challenge.
“The standardizing of the Dominican recipes is the hardest thing to do,” Aris Compres says. “You can just imagine your grandma cooking, kind of throwing a little bit of this, a little bit of that into the pot. I mean, how do you measure that?”
The recipe standardization remains a work in process, as I learned one evening. Looking to order the Dominican cake, with its pineapple filling and merengue icing, I was told it was unavailable. Mercedes was apparently out of town, and no one else had yet mastered her sponge cake. As the name of the place implies — “Mecho” is a common Spanish nickname for Mercedes — the strip-mall shop remains Mom’s domain. At least for the time being. (The liquidy tres leches cake, with its lapping waves of orange zest, makes for a decent substitution.)
Dominican cooking shares DNA with Puerto Rico — and, by extension, West Africa, the ancestral home of some Caribbean dishes — but if you’ve ever had mofongo in Puerto Rico, you know immediately that the version at Mecho’s is something different. The Mecho’s kitchen minces and sautes garlic with a little oil and rehydrated chicken bouillon, which helps to round out the pungent edges of the standard Puerto Rican mofongo, typically prepared with raw garlic. With a long squeeze of lime, Mecho’s mofongo is an ideal carrier of fresh, sweet curls of shrimp.
Mama Mecho uses the same sofrito, or sazón, as the base for all her meats. One bite of the pernil, a juicy pile of pulled pork that pulsates with garlic and Dominican oregano, and you’ll quickly realize the meat needs little assistance from the optional hot sauces, including a habanero salsa that stings like a scorpion. The sazón assumes a more muted persona with the thick chunks of stewed goat, which better reveal their flavors when you break apart the individual fibers, as if they’ve sequestered the sofrito within their folds. The meat on the pork ribs falls off the bone with only the slightest pressure, exposing flesh at once fatty, crackly and perfumed with aromatics. Any one of these proteins make for a terrific addition to your Bandera.
Mecho’s expands on the classic Dominican chimi burger — this one features a beef patty nestled in a luxurious torta roll with onions, shredded cabbage and carrots and a creamy salsa rosada — to include a full line of sandwiches, including a vegetarian one with a Beyond Burger. My favorite is the chicken chimi, in which grilled and shredded chicken is stuffed into a soft, flour-dusted roll with the same cabbage, carrots and onions mixture. The bite is so saucy, and messy, it’s like trying to eat stew on a bun. Embrace the battle, and you’ll be rewarded.
One of the best ways to relax into the Mecho’s experience is to order lo tré golpé, a traditional Dominican breakfast with wedges of fried cheese (firm and salty, with crisp, bubbly edges), a fried egg (its yolk reduced to a yellow cake), two glistening pucks of Induveca salami (emboldened with the addition of pig hearts), all of which is served next to a mash of boiled plantains topped with pickled red onions. It’s the kind of calorie-dense plate that quickens the pulse and prepares you for the day. It’s also one more sign of Dominican generosity, which no fast-casual can (or should) smother.
If you go
Mecho's Dominican Kitchen
2450 Market St. NE, No. 801
Hours: 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. Monday through Saturday; 11 a.m. to 8 p.m. Sunday.
Nearest Metro: N/A
Prices: $2 to $15 for all items on the menu.